Race Weekend Central

This Weekend in Dirt: Ricky Thornton Jr. Angrily Takes 2023 Prairie Dirt Classic

Dirt Racing’s Winning Moment: Ricky Thornton Jr. blew past Bobby Pierce with 12 laps to go and drove away like a bat out of hell, scoring a commanding win the Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury American Legion Speedway in Illinois Saturday night (July 29).

Pierce, who led 74 of the 100 laps contested in Saturday’s feature, entered the weekend as the favorite and was virtually untouchable at the front after taking the lead from polesitter Ryan Gustin five laps in. But cracks in the No. 32’s armor started to appear at lap 62, when Thornton got alongside Pierce for the race lead as Pierce struggled to lap Cade Dillard. Thornton took the lead of the event for the first time on lap 71.

Pierce finished second in the event, with Gustin coming home third, leaving the top of the World of Outlaws late model points standings virtually unchanged.

2023 PRAIRIE DIRT CLASSIC RACE RESULTS

Dirt Racing’s Dramatic Moment: Thornton’s victory seemed to disappear when the caution flag flew on lap 81 … because it was his car that drew the caution. Coming to the start/finish line on lap 80, Thornton’s engine appeared to shut off, leaving his car stricken on the frontstretch as Pierce and others blew by.

Thornton was punted back to sixth for the ensuing restart based on the WoO’s “blend rule,” which calls for a car involved in a caution that doesn’t come to a four-tire stop to restart where they blend back into the running order.

Thornton objected to being put as far back in the field as he was, stopping multiple times under caution to speak to race officials and even mentioning that discontent in his post-race interview, but also acknowledged that his anger over the restart was partially responsible for motivating his late-race charge to victory.

What Dirt Racing Fans’ll Be Group Chatting About This Morning

The confusion/controversy over the blend rule ended up being nothing of consequence, given how quickly and decisively Thornton took the race lead back and won, literally leaving the field in his wake over the closing 12 laps. Having said that, damn if the Outlaws weren’t taking heat on social media over the call to put Thornton back to sixth.

Personally, I can’t stand the blend rule, as it is by definition a subjective rule that will always be vulnerable to criticism, of which there were many leveled over the race’s most important call, including many that saw the decision to put Thornton back to sixth instead of second as a direct shot across the bow of a competitor that’s full time on the WoO’s competitor tour, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.

Having said that, I don’t think the call was that awful here. If anything, I’d say the situation makes it clear that the blend rule needs to be scrapped in favor of a ruling that if a car draws the caution, they go to the rear, period. That wouldn’t rectify how the caution appeared to fly absurdly fast for Thornton’s momentary hiccup though.

During the long delay at the start of Saturday’s broadcast due to track work (no fault of the crew, they did a bang-up job getting the surface ready after heavy rains Friday), DirtVision ran a feature on new series director Steve Francis and the work he did this year to create a more racer-friendly travel schedule and to increase points funds to incentivize full-time teams. It was informative and the results speak for themselves, as the WoO roster is significantly deeper than it was a season ago.

Having said that, the post-race interviews on Saturday’s broadcast should be of great concern to the WoO, as both Pierce and Gustin made reference to the importance of points finishes in a crown-jewel race that they both lost. Not to mention that Pierce went as far as to say that Thornton was driving harder specifically because he wasn’t racing for WoO points.

I’d make a firm argument that it’d be in the WoO’s interest to award points solely on prelim night and leave the crown-jewel race free of points concerns. Because Pierce admitting to be outdriven by someone is a rare bird.

Let’s get to some positives, because Saturday was definitely not a bad race. I will die on the hill that dirt racing needs to stop downsizing seemingly every track in the country that’s longer than 0.375 miles, but tracks like Fairbury certainly make the case that shorter is better for modern-day dirt cars. Despite the track being heavy all weekend long, two grooves were in play for the entirety of the Prairie Dirt Classic.

The tradition of the PDC winner driving his racecar to a local bank two blocks from the racetrack to collect winnings is about as cool a victory celebration as there is in American racing. Good stuff.

Speaking about celebration, the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed track officials on multiple occasions getting really trigger-happy with novelty checks. For example, Thornton’s name was written on his prelim feature winner’s check Friday night before his car had cleared post-race tech. Even money a major-race check gets marred by a disqualified winner before 2023 ends.

Yes, the rationale that Fairbury used to limit the number of modified cars that entered the Prairie Dirt Classic was valid. Space is definitely at a premium at this facility.

Having said that, there’s nothing that greater diminishes an event than an invitational-system without an objective measure to determine who qualifies. Plus, the PDC is also the finale of the DIRTcar Summer Nationals for the modified division. Making the finale of an open tour a closed-ranks affair is illogical. If there are truly space constraints on the facility that necessitate a cap on modified entries, there needs to be a qualification standard put in place for 2024.

Dirt Racing’s Hero(es) of the Weekend

Thornton is running away with the title of “driver of the year” by any objective measure in 2023 and his performance in the closing laps of Saturday’s PDC may well go down as the drive of the year. The only thing scarier that seeing Thornton drive angry was that his driving angry actually elevated his game. In a year that he’s already kicking the collective late model world’s ass. 

Third-place finisher Gustin was really down on himself in his post-race interview Saturday, as despite finishing third he still lost ground in the points chase to Pierce. But he gets a shoutout here for two reasons.

Saturday, the four laps he led were the only laps a Longhorn chassis didn’t lead in this year’s PDC. And on Friday, in taking his prelim win, Gustin showed tremendous restraint in not dooring Shannon Babb in the closing laps after taking a shot from him earlier during their battle for a transfer spot.

Dirt Racing’s Victim(s) of the Weekend

If features across the DIRTcar Summer Nationals and the PDC were 10 laps shorter, Drake Troutman may well be the story of the summer in dirt racing. Instead, Saturday night’s modified feature at Fairbury saw Troutman suffer another mechanical failure inside of 10 laps to go cost him another top-five finish.

Two Illinois local drivers both saw a PDC starting spot go out the window two laps short of the finish of the third prelim late model feature Friday. Myles Moos led the entire feature before having a break rotor detonate and send a tire flying off his car on what would have been the final restart.

On the ensuing restart for Moos’s trouble, McKay Winger then brought out another yellow while leading after cutting down a right-rear tire. Neither driver made it through a last chance race into Saturday’s feature.

Todd Cooney endured arguably the hardest wreck of the Prairie Dirt Classic when he barrel-rolled his late model. Fortunately, Cooney walked away.

Up Next: Frontstretch will be back Monday morning (Aug. 7) with coverage of the USA Nationals from Cedar Lake Speedway in Wisconsin. Streaming coverage can be found on DirtVision.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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